Children’s book honors Frieda Caplan and the attitude that changed American pantries
Mushrooms, kiwi, jicama, red bananas, dragon fruit and quince are only a few of the fruits and veggies part of Frieda Rapoport Caplan’s legacy.
She’s credited as the “Kiwi Queen,” “Mother Gooseberry” and the “Mushroom Lady” who made produce, described by some as unusual, accessible to American pantries. Frieda started working at the Seventh Street Produce Market in Los Angeles in 1956, opened her own specialty produce business on April 2, 1962, and eventually moved the company (now called Frieda’s, Inc.) to Los Alamitos in 1994 where she continued to visit the office four days a week well into her mid-90s.
Frieda could feel it in her elbows when she knew what produce was going to be popular. That’s a detail that Karen Caplan, her daughter, passed on to author Mara Rockliff in their conversations and email exchanges about Frieda, who died in 2020 at the age of 96.
The result was “Try It! How Frieda Caplan Changed the Way We Eat,” a picture book published in January 2021 by Simon & Schuster.
Rockliff, who specializes in writing children’s books about true stories, took a trip to Israel organized by the nonprofit PJ Library and was inspired to alphabetically scroll through the Jewish Women’s Archive online encyclopedia for potential book subjects. When she landed on “Caplan,” she thought kids would love Frieda’s story.
“I realized that out of all these books I’ve never done one about a Jewish woman, even though I’m a Jewish woman. That seemed like an oversight,” Rockliff said. “I’m 51, so I have had the opportunity to see big changes in supermarket produce sections over my lifetime … to realize that there was one person who actually made that happen was mind boggling.”
Rockliff contacted Frieda, Inc. about the book three years ago, and Karen Caplan, who is the company’s president and CEO, responded.
Frieda’s story has been reiterated in media outlets, marketing textbook chapters, in a David Letterman late-night segment and in the Los Alamitos Museum and a documentary “Fear No Fruit.”
But for Karen Caplan, a children’s book is something special. It passes on Frieda Caplan’s attitude about life — just trying it.
“[The book] makes fruits and vegetables approachable to a young person and that makes all the difference in the world,” Karen Caplan said. “Diversity is super important — whether it’s diversity in what we eat or who we speak with, which was very important to my mom.”
For Rockliff, the book works on multiple levels — to introduce foods to kids in a colorful way and to learn about a woman who did something important in an almost all-male industry. The book was illustrated by Giselle Potter.
The company, which is still run by a group of Caplan women, plans to celebrate its 59th anniversary at the Los Alamitos location next week with purple frosted cupcakes and its staff of about 130.
Although Frieda wasn’t aware that the book was in the works, her family and colleagues started to get a hold of it in February and Rockliff received positive feedback.
“[Karen] felt that I captured the spirit of Frieda and her company,” Rockliff said. “That was a rare touching moment for me. I write about people further in the past. I try to get to know them really well, and I really fall in love with these subjects. I want to do them justice, but there’s no one who could say to me, ‘You got that.’”
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